With Honors

Many Rising Stars have a cum laude or two under their belts. Are those resume adornments worth all the sleepless nights?

Published in 2006 Washington Rising Stars Magazine — January 2006

Those glistening awards beckon beguilingly at the start of law school—cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude. Are they anything more than ephemera, attractive to look at but insubstantial as fog when it comes to impact on a career? Or are those arduous hours in the law library, the spurned invitations to football tailgate parties and late-night revelries actually worth something—financial or otherwise?

According to three local honors recipients, the question is hardly open and shut. Stuart Morgan, with Eisenhower & Carlson in Tacoma, graduated cum laude from Seattle University School of Law in 1996. He is circumspect about the award. “I don’t think it was that huge a deal, though I definitely notice it now when I interview people or look at resumes.”

MOTIVATION MATTERS

Honors, though, were a conscious goal for Cynthia Stross with Savitt & Bruce, a cum laude graduate of Cornell Law School in 1994. She received magna cum laude awards as an undergraduate from Kenyon College, Ohio, in 1989 and spent several years working before entering Cornell.

Jeffrey Dunbar, of Ogden Murphy Wallace, who earned magna cum laude honors from Seattle University School of Law in 1996, says the special designation has an impact, especially in challenging economic times. “When I got out of law school, the market conditions were terrible,” Dunbar recalls. “One hundred-fifty people were interviewing for two or three jobs. There were people in the top ten percent of the class who couldn’t get hired. I think it matters tremendously how you are perceived relative to your peers.”

Dunbar says his path to high achievement was forged in a difficult family experience when he was young.“My parents bought a business—a restaurant supply business—in eastern Washington. They thought they were buying something, but they were really buying nothing. They went bankrupt, and we ended up living in my grandmother’s basement in Wenatchee.” That experience, Dunbar says, taught him a crucial lesson and propelled him into law school. “I realized that information was power, and that the price of ignorance was too high. I wanted to be more informed.”

His magna cum laude honors were the consequence of the drive awakened by that family crisis. “I wanted to do the best I can. I’m self-motivated—I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I approached law school with the idea that no one was going to outwork me.”

Like Dunbar, Morgan can trace his interest in law back to his childhood, which he spent in Long Beach, California. “It all started in junior high,” he recalls. “Instead of a debate team, we had a mock trial program. I don’t even remember how I got on the team, but I remember we used to travel around and compete against other schools. I always enjoyed it, and in my last couple of years of college, I thought I’d try it professionally.”

Morgan, though, says achieving honors status was fairly coincidental. “I didn’t make a conscious decision to pursue honors. In fact, my whole hope when I got admitted to law school . . . I just wanted to pass my classes.” Once he got a taste of success, though, he was hooked. “I didn’t have any financial aid, but I got a merit scholarship after my first semester. I thought, ‘This is cool,’ and then I started putting pressure on myself to keep up my grades.”

Coolness aside, Morgan recalls that keeping up those grades, along with working in the legal department of the Hillhaven Corporation (a nursing home-management business), was more than a bit challenging. “Every minute I wasn’t working, I was doing schoolwork. I think I sacrificed a lot of friendships in law school—I was pretty isolated.”

“It did translate into less social time,” Stross agrees. “It basically meant going to class every day and attempting to process the material every day, instead of waiting until the end of the semester—thinking about the material in a way that goes beyond just answering the questions in class.” She says the difference between the honors achievers and the rest of the students was pretty straightforward. “Most people in Cornell had sufficient intelligence to make honors. So what made the difference came down to drive.”

Stross worked for three years after college and says the time allowed her to narrow her focus. “I worked for [former] Senator Brock Adams after college, and I really admired the people of his support staff—their disciplined and rigorous approach to knowledge. When I went into law school, I thought I’d go back into politics, where I’d come from. But Cornell has a heavy emphasis on corporate law, and that opened different doors for me.” Intrigued by public interest law, she spent almost a year working for the Environmental Defense Fund but says it was too much of a desk job. “I did some soul searching in Seattle [where she was born and raised] and volunteered as a domestic violence [victims’] advocate for King County. “I decided I wanted to be a prosecutor,” Stross continues. “I took a contract position there and worked as hard as humanly possible and finally got hired in 1996.” Stross spent four years in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, then went to Savitt & Bruce.

“It was clear to me,” she says, “that achieving honors gave me confidence in seeking my first job and that it looked good on my resume.”

THE BOSS’S PERSPECTIVE

Talking with John Devlin, the hiring partner for Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, sheds some light on the weight that honors awards carry when it comes to employment prospects. “I’ve been involved with recruiting for eight years. My responsibilities now are to manage the summer associate and the recruiting processes,” Devlin says. “I sift through the hundreds of resumes we get.” Do resumes with honors stand out? “I do see the line on the resume. It’s just one thing we look for, among other things.”

Devlin explains that the timing of honors awards makes them immaterial for hiring decisions on summer associates. “We look at law school grades and what kind of law school they’ve attended, but when we see them, honors haven’t been designated yet. By the time they [the students] have gotten the awards, either they’ve been hired or they haven’t. So it doesn’t help me with [hiring] associates.” Devlin does say that for lateral hires (hiring already-practicing lawyers), “it’s nice to see. But if they’ve been out of school for ten years, it’s not going to give us much information.” As far as impact on salary, Devlin says that law school honors never come up in salary negotiations. So, in a practical sense, are the awards good for anything? “Well,” he answers, “believe it or not, there are some clients who really look at that when they decide on a lawyer.”

Morgan, Dunbar and Stross are now well established in their legal careers. Morgan spends his free time out-of-doors. “I’m an avid Cougar football fan. I like to boat, hunt ducks and pheasants, or just lie on the beach.” Stross and Dunbar, both with young children, say their lives away from work are now centered around their families. Stross, who has a 21/2-year-old daughter, is also “somewhat involved in community-supported agriculture.”

Says Dunbar: “I’m a father, and when I’m not working my 60-hour weeks, I enjoy spending time with my child.We like to go for walks and watch Barney and Friends. It used to be Teletubbies, but we’ve moved on.” As far as the grind of their education and the hurdles they placed in front of themselves? Dunbar sums it up this way. “I try to forget law school days, to be honest.”

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